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7 Tips for Conducting Online Classes That Engage Students

Nic Lyons

March 30, 2021

If you’re accustomed to in-person teaching, conducting online classes can feel like entering a foreign country. The language and customs are different, and you’re not sure how to find your way around. And you’re not just a tourist here. Your students are relying on you to be their guide. To create the best student experience possible, you’ll need to get the lay of the land and find new ways to communicate. 

Think of this post as your guidebook to this new country. We’ll share some of the must-do activities as well as what to look out for along the way. Put these seven tactics into practice, and you’ll soon be managing online classes like a digital native. 

1. Orient students to the technology and learning platform

Some of your students may be totally comfortable in the online space. Others probably aren’t. In any case, the way you use the technology might be different from what they’ve seen before. Take time at the beginning of the course to orient students to the learning portal and class expectations.

Make sure they understand: 

  • Where to find assignments and how to submit them.
  • Who and how to ask for help with technical questions.
  • How to communicate with the instructor or instructors. 
  • The time commitment and course expectations. 
  • When and how they’ll complete assessments. 

2. Set clear expectations for your online class

Just as you would set rules for conduct and behavior in an in-person classroom, you should do the same online. It’s just that the rules might be a little different. For example, you might ask students to mute their microphone whenever they’re not speaking. 

Don’t assume that students already know how to behave. Even adults need guidance on how to act in a new environment. Setting clear expectations upfront can help sessions run more smoothly and make students feel more comfortable. 

3. Make room for asynchronous learning

When you teach in person, students have to show up on a particular day and time. Online classes can be more flexible, but only if you let them be. Some courses still insist on holding students to a strict schedule. Such stubborn adherence to “how we’ve always done it” can prevent students from learning. 

During on-site classes, there are few distractions. At home, there are many. Children, pets, household chores, even a knock on the front door can pull learner attention away from the class session. Make it easier for them by recording sessions so students can watch or rewatch later.

If you have attendance requirements, it might be time to reassess them. Which is more important: learning the material or showing up at a particular place and time?

4. Keep the lines of class communication open

Not seeing students face-to-face may mean you have fewer opportunities for relationship building. It doesn’t have to be that way. Open lines of communication to help you and your students feel more connected. You’ll be more likely to notice when they’re struggling, and they’ll be more likely to ask for help.

Most importantly, don’t wait until the end of the course to get feedback from students. Send out surveys or poll questions periodically to ask them questions like these: 

  • Do you feel supported in this class? 
  • How easy is it for you to navigate the course?
  • Do you understand how to find and submit assignments? 
  • Do you know how to get technical help if you need it? 
  • Are the expectations for this course clear? 
  • If you could change one thing about this course, what would it be?

You can use this feedback to adjust the course from session to session. 

5. Provide social time and space for students

Another way to help students feel connected is through less structured social time. Block time at the beginning or end of each class when students can network and get to know each other.

Since it’s hard for multiple people to talk at once during an online session, you might hold the conversation in the chat to allow more interaction. You can also try sorting students into break-out rooms. Most online teaching platforms give you a way to assign students to their own small-group video chat and then call them back at the end of an allotted time. The same trick works well for small-group discussions during the lesson. 

6. Make learning and teaching active

If your in-person classes relied on lectures, you might need to mix things up. Students have many more distractions when learning online, so their attention is more likely to wander. Videos, discussions, assignments, and polls can all help draw students back into the lesson. 

Most online learning platforms have tools for polling or quizzing. These low-pressure interactions can act as anchor points, keeping students engaged and interested in what’s happening. Let students know that polls aren’t graded, but you do expect them to participate. The more fun and interesting your questions are, the better. So don’t be afraid to get creative or even silly. 

7. Stay flexible

Online classes can be both rewarding and unpredictable. Pets or children may insist on joining in. Students might be called away to deal with family issues in the middle of a session. Some days the technology might not work as anticipated. These interruptions only become more disruptive when you get upset over them. Keep calm and stay flexible. 

With these seven tactics as your guidebook, you can confidently navigate online classes and help students to do the same. Remember that you and your students are exploring this new landscape together. If you stay open and willing to learn alongside them, online classes can be an opportunity to enrich the student experience. 

Nic Lyons

Nic is skilled in scaling start-up edtech and education organizations to growth-stage success through innovative marketing. A former journalist and copywriter, Nic holds a postgraduate certificate in digital and print publishing from Columbia University School of Journalism's publishing course.

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